|Seven Days in May|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 16 May 2000|
There is a lot of unjustified nostalgia in the film world. People complain constantly that "they don’t make them like they used to," when in fact, plenty of old movies are every bit as forgettable as bad movies made today, while some recent films rate as classics. However, whether they’re fresh or from the vaults, movies like 1964’s ‘Seven Days in May’ will always be welcome.
Based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel & Charles W. Bailey II, ‘Seven Days in May’ is a beautifully constructed political thriller that hasn’t dated much at all. Yes, there aren’t too many movies made these days in black-and-white and women’s hairstyles and manners have changed a bit – Ava Gardner’s cast-off mistress character is very much of that period, not ours – but the plot motor and dynamics are still scarily applicable to the modern world. Kirk Douglas plays Col. "Jiggs" Casey, who works under Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Scott (Burt Lancaster). Gen. Scott – and most of the American public – vociferously object to a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Russians, which is favored by the U.S. President (Fredric March). So far, business as usual in Washington, D.C. – until Casey begins to believe that Scott and several of the other Joint Chiefs may be planning to forcibly overthrow the government.
Since we can assume there won’t be much of a movie if Casey is wrong, the story hinges on what, if anything, can be done to stop the coup. Although there is almost no onscreen violence, menace is everywhere. Writer Rod Serling, who lived for this sort of thing, presents just about every angle of every conceivable argument with articulate fervor, creating characters with complex, contradictory notions about loyalty, duty and honor.
Lancaster, as the soft-spoken warrior who’s sure he’s right, and March, as the aggrieved Chief Executive, couldn’t be better, and Douglas is sober and subtle. Director John Frankenheimer crafts wonderful, iconographic shots that set the mood with a single image. Check out the beautifully complicated shot in Chapter 12, where Casey ducks down to hide behind a car, while we see reflected in the car’s square window a bright rectangular doorway with a dark figure coming through it. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is something to savor, tense and haunting, without ever swamping the dialogue, the ambient track or the mood.
The DVD comes with a feature-length audio commentary from director Frankenheimer, who enthusiastically expounds on everything from the film’s themes to a near-riot during production to the cooperation of then-President John Kennedy in helping the film crew to get a day of footage outside the White House. There’s also some notes on the political climate in the U.S. at the time the film was made.
Visually, the black-and-white print is sharp, crisp and clear, with no detectable blemishes. The audio track is not quite as exciting. Some sound effects – a police whistle in Chapter 2 and a strong blend of score, dialogue and effects in Chapter 21 – are just fine. Then there are sequences like the one in Chapter 8, where the sound of an applauding crowd is so muddied that it takes a moment to understand exactly what we’re supposed to be hearing. The dialogue is always clear, but occasionally seems a bit divorced from the ambient track.
Clearly, ‘Seven Days in May’ is not a disk to use for testing a sound system. However, if you enjoy the political thriller genre, this remains a prize.